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Essential Cinema: A Woman Under The Influence

By Rob Christopher in Arts & Entertainment on Sep 15, 2009 3:20PM

2009_9_14essentialcinema.jpg Proof that a movie can be both harrowing and exhilarating, this John Cassavetes 1974 classic is his masterpiece. And Cassavetes himself described the movie perfectly:

I'm very concerned about the depiction of women on the screen. It's related to their being either high- or low-class concubines, and the only question is when or where they will go to bed, and with whom or how many. There's nothing to do with the dreams of women, or of woman as the dream, nothing to do with the quirky part of her, the wonder of her. I'm sure we could have made a much more successful film if A Woman Under the Influence had depicted Mabel's life as being rougher, more brutal; if it made statements so that people could definitely take sides. But along the way, I'd have to look at myself and say, "Yes, we were successful in creating another horror in the world." I don't know anyone who has had such a terrible time that she doesn't smile ever, that she doesn't have time to love, open her eyes, think about the details of life. Something [wonderful] happens all the time, even at the height of tragedy. I wanted to show that too.

Showing Wednesday and Saturday at the Siskel, it's part of UCLA Film & Television Archive's 14th Festival of Preservation. In the title role Gena Rowlands offers one of the gutsiest and most emotionally wrenching performances in the history of cinema. We really mean that. Her Mabel is charming, frightening, annoying, touching; as Roger Ebert describes, "her madness burns amid the confusions of domestic life," and it is the relentless demands of being mother, wife, and protector that prevent her from finding equilibrium. Peter Falk is her husband Nick, whose gruff exterior masks his own craziness. They're wonderful together.

"The secret of Cassavetes' method is to deny viewers every form of intellectual distance and control," writes Ray Carney. "The experiences he presents can't be held intellectually at arm's length. They won't be simplified by being translated into received ideas or push-button emotions." Take it from us: seeing A Woman Under the Influence is an experience you won't regret.